It’s college application season (and National Mentoring Month) and the specter of last year’s historically low acceptance rates looms large on the horizon for many high school seniors. But not for New York City native Samara Jordan. She already has seven acceptance letters in the bag.
And Jordan, 17, has beaten a lot of odds to create such a wealth of choice for herself. She is from the Bronx, an area of New York City known more for its poverty than for its academic successes. She was raised by her father, a hospital worker who lost his job last summer, according to Jordan. She does not have a close relationship with her mother.
But Jordan was given a significant boost in her high school years from a mentoring program, Student Sponsor Partners (SSP.) The program matched her with a financial sponsor, who paid her tuition at St. Jean Baptiste, a Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and a mentor, who provided guidance and support through all four years of high school. Her experience is an example of how a mentoring program can help pave the way to college for lower-income, urban students.
The most successful mentoring programs often have two characteristics, according to Chris Emdim, associate professor of science education at Teacher’s College. First, they target the students who need mentoring the most, not the students who are already high achievers.
In this vein, SSP was founded in 1986 “for the students who would otherwise fall through the cracks,” according to Executive Director Margaret Minson. SSP targets kids who are average or below-average students. To be eligible, the family’s per capita income has to be $10,000 a year or less. Today, the group supports 1,400 students, about three-quarters of whom come from single-parent households. They attend 26 private schools across New York City.
Secondly, Emdim says, the most successful programs match students with mentors who come from the same social and ethnic backgrounds as they do.
“People in certain places don’t see people that look like them in important places,” Emdim explains. “They kind of perceive corporate success as something that’s white male.”
Jordan’s mentor, Dachell McSween, 37, was once an SSP student at St. Jean’s herself. After graduating from high school, she went on to study journalism and communications at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y. She later earned a Masters’ degree from New York University in publishing. Today, McSween is a freelance content producer for news websites and a communications consultant.
And, like Jordan, she grew up in the Bronx.
“It makes it extra special that I can share with her my experience in the program,” McSween said. “It makes her see, ‘Oh wow, I can do the same thing.’”
Over the past four years, Jordan and McSween have become close friends, “almost like part of my family,” according to Jordan. They venture out together to the movies, the opera, and Knicks games. McSween offers practical advice on navigating the pitfalls of teenagehood. And, during the stressful process of applying to colleges, McSween helped Jordan refine her college essays.
“I can depend on her when I need her,” Jordan said. “Especially since it’s just my dad. You always need another person to help you out who knows and who has the experience.”
Though mentors who are also alumni like McSween are the exception, not the norm at SSP, the program reports impressive results: 84 percent of their students graduate from high school (as compared to 65 percent in New York City public schools last year,) and 90 percent of their graduates go on to college, according to Minson.
Next fall, Jordan will become one of those college-going graduates. She hasn’t decided where yet, though chances are good she will be in Atlanta at a historically black college. But she does know that she intends to study social work so she can one day run her own non-profit. That, and return to St. Jean’s to mentor another SSP student.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.